Cleaning the stables

 

NEW LAWS cannot be applied retrospectively. So anti-corruption legislation proposed by Alan Shatter will not trouble those dishonest business people, politicians and public servants who escaped from a dung-filled stable before the Minister for Justice moved to bolt the door. In spite of that, passage of this legislation will represent a departure from inadequate ethical standards in public and corporate affairs and should ensure that future corrupt activity and white-collar crime will be severely punished.

It is 15 years since the McCracken tribunal exposed the corrupt interface between big business and politics. Since then, its successors have identified fraudulent and dishonest practices within the planning, financial and corporate sectors at considerable public expense. And while a handful of politicians and public officials have been jailed, not one of their wealthy benefactors has seen the inside of a prison. This immunity has undermined public confidence in the rule of law.

Previous governments promised to address what they admitted were unsatisfactory laws on corruption and white-collar crime. But, as senior politicians came under the spotlight, nothing was done. Crises in the construction and banking systems in 2008 and the chicanery that surrounded those events brought new, unfulfilled pledges. Now, Mr Shatter has unveiled his intent. Despite a background of political prevarication, these proposals will be referred to a joint Oireachtas committee for initial consideration, leading to further delays in the publication and passage of legislation.

The commitment of the Minister for Justice to root out corruption in business and public life is not in question. But surely he could treat this issue with greater urgency? The joint programme for government undertook to punish white-collar crime and to introduce consequences for any corporate behaviour that threatened the economy. In that regard, it will establish the financial offence of “using a document to deceive”.

Legislation will criminalise the direct or indirect giving of inducements and the use of confidential information by a public official to convey an advantage. It will create an offence of knowingly or recklessly making payments to a third party that could be used as a bribe. In addition, courts will be empowered to order transcripts, recordings and other materials in complex financial cases and circulate them to juries. They will be able to remove convicted politicians, public servants and company directors from office for specified periods and impose unlimited fines.

The introduction of these offences and penalties is long overdue. Political and corporate resistance caused aspects of an EU convention on international business, signed by Ireland in 2003, to be held up. Such dilatory behaviour represents an affront to law-abiding citizens. Mr Shatter has a reputation for being a tough and abrasive politician and has insisted that corruption in any form will not be tolerated. As Minister for Justice he will have his work cut out to restore Ireland’s tarnished business image and ensure that a reviving economy will benefit from proper ethical standards.

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